Trompe Card of Decor : Decorating: This house painter's pals call her 'Vickiangelo.' Her paintings of interior surfaces use the 'trick of the eye' technique of centuries ago.


Things like this always start out small. One can imagine Pope Julius II strolling around thoughtfully in the Sistine Chapel, peering at the bare ceiling and saying, "Hmmm . . . needs a little something."

Michelangelo arrives. The pontiff says he thinks a few cherubs with trumpets would be nice. Nothing fancy, just a little color in the corners to jazz things up for Christmas.

Michelangelo suggests adding a biblical personality--Adam, say. The Pope goes for it. Up goes the scaffolding.

The work progresses. Julius is thrilled. He suggests adding a handful of notable saints and a few allegorical scriptural scenes. Short for the rent, Michelangelo shrugs and tells him it's a terrific idea.

And before either men realize it, the ceiling is packed to the eaves with famous religious folk, and the Pope and the artist are discussing spiffing up the den with a few witty Latin proverbs painted in neo-Gothic.

People can get like that when they start turning their walls and ceilings into works of art. A flower here and a vine there, and before long the thought of a flying wedge of cherubs with baseball bats and the faces of the Marx Brothers chasing around the chandelier after a phalanx of demons who look a lot like the cast of the "Today" show, all against a background of fleecy pink clouds, doesn't sound so odd. Ask Vicki Miller.

Miller, who is a lot breezier than Michelangelo, is a house painter, but she never works with anything as crude as a paint roller. A coat of Navajo white is, to her, merely an undercoat on the canvas.

Take Lorrie and Michael Sutton's house in Laguna Hills, for instance. It's a sprawling custom job in Nellie Gail Ranch, where Miller's influence is obvious from the moment the front door opens.

Above the entry hall, recessed into the high ceiling above the curving staircase, is an egg-shaped dome from which hangs a large brass lamp. The interior surface of the dome is meticulously painted with an English country scene, dominated by an old stone church with birds wheeling around the belfry.

It is as if the dome is a curved window and the scene outside is not a suburban hill above Interstate 5, but the fens of Cambridgeshire. (There is one bit of subtle cheating: The castle that is painted on the horizon was taken from a book of Irish, not English, scenes.)

The name for this technique is trompe l'oeil-- literally "trick of the eye." It is designed to create such a strong illusion of reality that a person looking at it may not realize, at first, that it is a painting. Lorrie Sutton fell in love with it.

It even shows up in the Sutton laundry room. Above the countertop where, presumably, clothes are folded, sits a cat atop a shelf, which also supports a handful of books. The entire scene is painted on the wall.

"We had a cat that ran away from home about seven years ago that I've missed," Lorrie Sutton said. "I showed Vicki pictures of it, and she brought it back again on the wall."

Even the books are personalized: Family members' names appear as the names of the authors and publishers on the books' spines.

On the facing wall is a rectangular paned window, with a latch and surrounded by tile, set into what appears to be a cracked stone wall. The window is actually the door of the ironing board cupboard. The tile, stone wall and cracks all are painted illusions.

"It's not drudgery to come in here anymore," Sutton said.

Meanwhile, paperhangers have gone hungry.

"When I saw what Vicki could do," she said, "I just wanted more and more. My husband is a little nervous about me getting carried away with it. After we did the dome, he said, 'OK, enough.' "

Well he might. Miller said a "moderately difficult" painting job that takes about eight hours will probably cost a client about $750. This includes the cost of materials and research.

Before the brakes were applied, however, the Sutton nursery was painted with small cherubs on the ceiling (one of which Sutton believes has a face that resembles her young daughter), and in a second children's bedroom the words "Once Upon a Time" and "Happily Ever After" are painted high on facing walls.

Also, the ceilings of an upstairs bathroom and two downstairs dining rooms were painted with a multicolor "clouding" technique--the paint is applied by dabbing it on with rags or sponges, then glazed--and one of the downstairs rooms was enhanced with paintings of green ivy twining over the walls and ceiling.

Still, it's the dome that is the trompe l'oeil showpiece of the house.

"At first I thought I'd just do the sky and tops of trees as if you were looking out of a dome," Sutton said, "but Vicki brought over English landscaping books to get ideas for trees, and I saw all these cathedrals and castle ruins, and I just started getting more ideas."

In fact, she said, after Miller painted the nursery more than a year ago, "the more she did, the more ideas I kept having."

Sounds like a bit of Pope Julius creeping in ("Say, Mike, why not put a longer beard on God? And bigger biceps. And hey, don't any of these people get to wear any shoes ?").

Yep, it's great to be the boss.

But Miller said she was up to it. An artistic meeting of the minds, she said, is much more satisfying than her previous job: She designed point-of-purchase displays for various commercial products.

She fled the sales biz and started painting murals for baby nurseries about two years ago, she said, but when she started learning more about the trompe l'oeil technique, "the more my business evolved into a bigger category of serious art work for people's homes."

This obliged her to go out and buy a neck brace, an item anyone who has visited the Sistine Chapel has coveted. When working on ceiling paintings, Miller said, the brace eases the strain on neck muscles that must be craned skyward hour after hour.

(Bonus travel tip: Going to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel? Get there first thing in the morning, before the big crowds show up, and lie flat on the floor. Or take a pocket mirror and look at the ceiling that way. Or, if you're enterprising, stand outside in St. Peter's Square and hawk Ben-Gay.)

But, Miller said, unlike Michelangelo under the yoke of Pope Julius, she was happy in her work at the Sutton house.

"The greatest challenge for me," she said, "is understanding what the client wants. Most people don't have the ideas that Lorrie has, and they aren't as daring about implementing their ideas as she is.

"Lorrie wanted something on the dome and had first thought about an Italian-type mural, and then bounced back and forth between turning it into a trompe l'oeil skylight and a European scene. My husband and I have lots of books with British scenes, and she fell in love with lots of the pictures. We took a tree from one page, a cathedral from another and created our own English countryside scene."

Up went the scaffolding and up climbed Miller, with brushes and brace. And, a week later, the Suttons had a domed window on an imaginary world 8,000 miles away.

And Miller had yet another justification for her nickname.

"I get called 'Michelangelo' all the time," she said. "Actually, they call me 'Vickiangelo.' "

Good thing. Vickiangelo sounds much more approachable if you're asking for Joe Garagiola with a pointy tail.

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